A new £8 million bursary scheme will underline Cambridge's commitment to poor students, but the university needs top-up fees to be able to afford it, vice-chancellor Alison Richard has said.
Launching the initiative, Professor Richard said every student receiving the proposed £1,000 maintenance grant would get a full £4,000 a year bursary from 2006, while about 10 per cent would get the equivalent of basic living costs. This will progressively decrease up to a family income of about £35,000 to avoid "poverty traps".
She admitted the scheme relied on the government's forthcoming higher education bill becoming law and allowing universities to charge fees of up to £3,000 a year.
Cash would initially be generated from the full £3,000 in fees Cambridge is expected to levy on undergraduates. Eventually, fundraising would be expected to play a greater role.
Professor Richard said the university expected ultimately to earn about £20 million a year from tuition fees. She said fees were essential for Cambridge because the university was underfunded for teaching by £24 million a year.
The fact that fees could be deferred and repaid on an income-contingent basis when graduates had jobs had been overlooked in the debate, according to Professor Richard.
She said: "That point keeps getting lost and I think it's very important. We can make a stronger case to students from poor backgrounds. I feel passionately that this university must be open to all outstanding students, regardless of background."
The scheme would be closely monitored to ensure that there was no adverse effect on students from middle-class families. She said she was aware of claims that this group would be caught in the middle - too rich to claim the bursary, too poor to afford the full fee.
Ben Brinded, president of the Cambridge University Student Union, was concerned that calculations for the bursary scheme were based on the full £3,000 being charged for every course. He believed that this would deter graduates from taking jobs in the public sector.